Know Your Rights: Email policy violates right to free speech

Editorial Cartoon for Tuesday, Oct. 29

THE ISSUE: Under the “Computer Systems Security” section of the WKU student handbook, students are warned their “e-mail resources” may be “revoked at any time for inappropriate conduct.” This label extends to any material that is “reasonably likely to be perceived as offensive based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, religious or political beliefs.”

OUR STANCE: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has given WKU a red light rating for this curtailing of free speech. We applaud the Student Government Association for already passing a resolution that suggests WKU amend this section of the handbook that currently limits freedom of speech. As an organization that promotes an absolute freedom of speech as a cornerstone of the free press and democracy, the Herald urges the university to change this policy as soon as possible.

The year was 1969.

Clarence Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan member, was on trial for a charge of inciting violence with his racist speech against the black community in Ohio. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, eventually came to the Supreme Court.

In one of the most decisive endorsements of free speech in United States history, the Supreme Court declared that the “constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force, or of law violation, except where such advocacy is directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

This protected Brandenburg’s speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution and established the “imminent lawless action” test as the only means to limit free speech in the U.S.

Basically, unless one can prove that certain speech is responsible for “imminent lawless action,” it is covered under the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

However, WKU’s own policy is not aligned with this notion.

When contacted by the Herald about this policy of revoking email resources for what WKU could determine as offensive speech, Howard Bailey, vice president for Student Affairs, said his staff was already planning to look at the wording of the policy.

This policy shouldn’t exist in the first place if the university wishes to uphold its reputation as being a leading academic institution that values a free exchange of ideas.

As Bob Owen, vice president for information technology, said in his interview with the Herald, we understand that monitoring all student email for hate speech is impossible, making the possibility of a massive restriction on free speech among students quite slim.

But that doesn’t make the policy any more tolerable because it does not guarantee freedom for a student who might decide to send out a mass email that catches the university’s attention.

Under the current policy, WKU can silence such a student.

This is simply intolerable in a community that ought to value the broadening of minds.

Bailey said the university will be working on a change to the student handbook that will better define what speech can be limited by the university.

“Hate speech should be challenged with other speech, not suppressed,” he said.

This is the pillar of American democracy, and the administration has an opportunity to support it for the future leaders currently studying at WKU.

Changing this policy should be a priority for WKU moving forward.

This editorial represents the majority opinion of the Herald’s 9-member editorial board.